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My Favorite International Cities #4 - Paris

My US cities series was so well received that I have been encouraged to write some more, this time about foreign cities. Starting in 2000 I began taking my two boys on trips to important European cities, usually capitals, for a series of three to five day trips over about ten years; I was the tour guide – the objective was to expand their experience beyond America.

Charles and I toured Paris alone, Andrew home in his freshman year at USC, Columbia. We had a great time. I have been to Paris 10-20 times, and love it still. What’s not to like about Paris? Even the people are now more friendly then 40 years ago. It remains the City of Lights: so-called because of its role in art, philosophy and literature and because it was the first great city to embrace gas lighting in 1829.

Paris was named by the locals in about 300 BC, the Parisii Gauls, later the name was promoted by Julius Caesar, not after the provocateur of the Trojan War…the Gallic tribes never heard of that Paris. The Roman influence of course became pervasive, but not lasting except in their construction projects. Important Roman temples, buildings, roads, bridges and aqueducts remain throughout France. The Roman leadership loved France and Germany as a place for pleasant retreat. Christianity came to this Roman world in about 300 AD said to be evangelized by Saint Denis who the Romans martyred atop Montmartre and buried at what is now called Basilica Saint-Denis, an important shrine. France became mostly Catholic, remaining, but now nominal.

Modern France has its roots in the 500’s with the gathering of the Frankish tribes in the area of Paris by Clovis and his successors. Paris became an important defense against the Viking invasions of the 800’s; by about 1000 AD, Paris had become the major city, capital, of a gradually better organized France. Paris began to build as befits a capital city; the foundation of Notre Dame was laid in 1163. Palaces and more bridges and even hotels were built. Walls were built to defend the Louvre Palace, government buildings constructed and they even paved the streets by 1215. The University of Paris was established in 1190.

With the help of Joan of Arc and the French leadership, the occupying Norman/Plantagenet/Tutor English were ousted in the late 1500’s. The Joan of Arc story, though really just a blip of history, is interesting and has important symbolic importance. Even though a teenager and farmer’s daughter, she for a time lead soldiers, steeled the back of the French king to resist the English, and infused all France with courage and hope. But she ran into a perfect storm: the French leadership came to resent and fear her influence with the troops and the peasants; the English, of course, hated her moves against them; and the Catholic Church couldn’t tolerate her allegiance to her voices and visions rather than to her priest. Her trial notes are still preserved and make for interesting reading: the Catholic Church is not into the Cancel Culture; they preserve all their history, even hers, who they helped to execute, that they now decry. She was declared posthumously innocent at retrial 20 years later, beautified in 1909 and canonized in 1920.

The modern France arose during the reigns of Louis XIII, XIV and XV. Cardinal Richelieu formed a nation and created a suitable capital through his vision, his skill, his energy and his ruthlessness. Even though Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles in 1682, Paris continued to grow. The King’s large and majestic Parisian boulevards and gardens added grace and beauty that continues. There is nothing quite so grand as strolling along St Germain, the Champs des Elysees, the Tuileries Gardens, the Luxenberg Gardens, Saint Michel, Saint Denis or the Montmartre. Louis XIV, called the Sun King, also promoted the sciences, architecture, literature and the visual arts. His statues of him are everywhere in both Paris and Versailles.

Then the French Revolution changed everything. Louis XVI was executed in 1793, but eventually the Revolution turned on itself and was ended by the insurrection of Napoleon in 1799. Napoleon lost no time in rebuilding and expanding Paris, a side of Napoleon’s reign not usually remembered. He also improved the legal system, improved public education and reformed the military to replace privilege with meritocracy. It is curious that an Englishman, Charles Dickens, best captured the spirit, hope and despair of these times in a “Tale of Two Cities.” But Alexander Dumas best captured the long view, the swirl of history as the Nobility and the Church rose and fell in his Musketeer series and the Man in the Iron Mask.

Surviving a German invasion, by the late 18oo’s Paris and all France exploded with confidence, money, art and grace. Even though intended to be temporary for the Great Exhibition, the Eiffel Tower, 1889, captured the spirit and success of the age, and remains a potent symbol of Paris and all France, along with the Pont Alexander III, the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais and an important Metro system. And a huge explosion in science, education and the arts (Courbet, Manet, David, Monet and Renoir remain famous today).

The modern Paris has hovered at about 3 million people, dropping to about 2 million in the year 2000. But as in New York, Toronto and London, Paris amalgamated its suburbs but not until 2016 to spring up to about 6 million population, forming the Metropolis of Grand Paris.

Paris is a walkable city, but like other large cities should be explored in districts. Since Paris is built in a series of circles, most folks start with one of several foci: the Arch du Triumph or the Seine River or the Louvre or the Concorde Circle or the Invalides Church/palace or the Luxembourg Gardens or the Tuileries or the Buttes-Chaumont Gardens or the Saint Martin canal and boulevard. Plan on spending several days in each district. Paris is really worth the time, not just to check off some list, but to really visit and explore and enjoy its architecture, its people, its culture and its food. The neighborhood restaurants are great and the owners will often come to your table to just visit, sometimes to sit; in one place Charles enjoyed the steak so much the owner gave him a second, no charge. A Japanese owner solicitously wanted to make sure we really liked all the sushi we ordered.

The must see sites really are must see sites. Go atop Montmartre and wander the streets mingling with the artists, visit the Basilica de Sacre Coeur for perpetual mass (but beware the pickpockets – this is the heaviest pickpocket infested area of the city), walk past the Russian cemetery, the first Russian Bistro and be sure to have lunch at Le Petit Galette. At the Arch (go under the street, don’t die trying to cross the six lanes of mad, roundabout Parisian traffic) admire the structure but also the Napoleon campaigns and the unknown soldier. Leave your credit card and cash home when you stroll the Champs du Elyse. Admire the Tuileries and Gardens and the Grand Entrance to the Louvre where you must see Venus de Milo, Ramses and the huge Egyptian and Assyrian collection, the David Collection celebrating in huge paintings Napoleon and in another room his final opponents, Julius Caesar and the Mona Lisa. Cross the river to Napoleons Tomb and pay quiet honor and admire his huge casket and some of his family, knowing that he is a bit out of public favor right now. Visit the Great Exhibition and Worlds Fair structures and take the time, if you are patient, to ascend the Eiffel Tower. Walk along the Seine, both banks, and pass buildings often four or five hundred years old, (Cardinal Richelieu’s Palace, on the river, is now a magnificent hotel, or more, and go across to the island to Notre Dame and its relics and treasures, sadly now recovering from a devasting fire. Nearby, are other important Catholic Churches, particularly the Sainte Chapelle, and government buildings. Walk down Boulevard St Michel and return to school at the Sorbonne, have lunch in the Latin Quarter or cross the park to the Pasteur Institute. Cross back over to Bastille Plaza and its bustling neighborhoods. And save time for other important Parisian Museums: the Orsay, the L’Orangerie, the Rodin, the Picasso, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Natural History.

Stay up late, all of Paris does: to walk, to visit, to eat and to be entertained, almost anywhere in the city. And if you crave a $100 single glass of house wine, go to the Moulin Rouge. There are over 16,000 restaurants in Paris: I recommend L’Auburge du Louvre (every time I’ve been there, nearby tables have wanted to engage conversation), Café Rivoli, Le Precope, Le Victoria Café, Le Chiberta, Café de Bonjamin, Le Restaurant Chinon, Le Fumoir, la Mandigotte, Le General, Chez Gabriells, Ayao, Unami Bastille and Le Petit Galette. And at least once in your lifetime go to the Les Ambassaeurs!

And of course you must go to Versailles a short train ride away via Gare Montparnasse. The original estate covered about 20 square miles and all walled; now it is about one-quarter that size. You will love the magnificent central palace most famous for its Hall of Mirrors, the Trianon, the Petite Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s Austrian village. Tour the magnificent living quarters, but know most of the court hated the forced time at the Chateau and estate.


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